Heathen Obligations Regarding Funerals.

Zion's Lutheran Cemetery in Berks County, PA

Zion’s Lutheran Cemetery in Berks County, PA

I understand that many people who read this blog may be entirely new to Heathenry, coming from mostly Christian, Agnostic, or various other backgrounds- and that’s perfectly fine!  However, one aspect of Germanic culture that I’ve noticed lost in our younger generations is funeral customs.  As medicine has been advancing, funerals are much less of a regular occurrence then in the times of our great-grandparents.  With this, I am guessing basic funerary etiquette is being lost as well- since so many families avoid the topic of Death entirely.

To describe oneself as a member of any of the “Old ways” faiths from Germany (and in this, I will include the Pa Deitsch in ENTIRETY rather than just the Urglaawe)- funerals are a pretty big deal traditionally. The older members of our family still visit the graves of our ancestors around every holiday and care for them- a tradition, I realize as a Heathen, I will need to take over in the next few years on account of moving back to my home county in addition to the advancement of age of my elder relatives…. for this post, the side of the family in which we lost an elder was an “Ancestor-worship” type- meaning the belief, Christian or Heathen, is that the newly dead have three choices, stay and “watch over” the living loved ones, to go onward into where ever they wish to rest eternally in spirit, or to be reincarnated back into the family line.  This is the collection of beliefs of my father’s paternal line.  We do not talk much about Gods, so I did not mention my specific Gods which came from other parts of my lineage except in the instance I will describe later- and then, it was only a simple sentence meant to end a conversation with a stranger.

All I can write at this moment is what I was taught- and how things have changed even in my time, and perhaps try to do was little “patching and restoration” I can for other people when they are faced with death anywhere in the family.

My great aunt passed away after years of suffering Huntingdon’s disease over the weekend.   She was kind to me, but many other people didn’t particularly care for her…  which then resulted in improper communication to the entirety of the family- since after the death of our matriarch, my great-grandmother, the entire family dissolved into a mess of petty bickering.   The new “soul” of our family (I’ll explain the term shortly) lives on the opposite coast- making communication to some of the further branches even more difficult considering that gentleman has Alzheimer’s.

My Great Grandmother had some siblings, but importantly, she had seven children.  All of those children had children and grandchildren of their own- some having greater or lesser knowledge of the rest of the family.  I was lucky she was alive until I was 12 to see that “Once upon a time- everyone shut the F* up when visiting Nana and got along for Her sake.”

Honestly, that was a really nice time to be a kid- I ended up with a ton of cousins, and since I was the oldest granddaughter of the youngest of the 7- many of my cousin also became “aunts” and “uncles” to me on account of the age differences.

Okay, so here is a short list of rules I learned yesterday regarding funerals and German traditions from the under 12 people who attended the funeral:

1.  Attend all funerals of elder members of your family if possible- if you still live within 15 minutes of the “homeland’ (which to this family is Mount Penn, Pa- we’ve been here since the 1700’s) there is little excuse not to take the time.  The older people in my family, the nieces of my Great Grandmother attended the funeral, but her own brothers and sisters did not…. for the most part because they didn’t get along with her.

By my remotest relatives- my Great-Grandmother’s nieces (all daughters of different sisters and all of them at leas 70!) suggested:
“They should all go to the funerals, damnit…. and if they hated her so much, then they should have at LEAST shown up to make sure she was dead!”

Basically, yes, funerals are considered boring and time consuming- but if you want to place value and honor on belief in your Ancestors- as a Heathen- it is your responsibility to recognize and attend when a family member is officially recognized as crossing over from “Family member” into “Ancestor territory”.

2.  Family funerals are the same thing as family reunions in many cases and vital to the strength and unity of the descendants. So many people feel alone and broken, and much of that reason is they do not realize that if they have suffered something, so have others who may be closely related to them.  Sometimes, the only way to find the explanation to your problems with your health (physical or mental)- is to take advantage of funeral time to re-introduce (or in my cousin’s case, introduce himself, period) to the rest of the family.    I met a second cousin yesterday who was adopted out at 11 years old, now he’s a young adult in the military and extraordinarily intelligent and interested in genealogy… he was also a dead-ringer for my grandfather’s pictures from him at that age.  My Pa Dutch grandfather is still alive, and was unable to attend the service on account of being in Florida…. however, because of the funeral, I was able to connect my genealogy-mad cousin with his Great Uncle, my grandfather, whose hobby has been the genealogy of our line.

3. There is always a “heart” of the family- someone who has the seemingly magical ability to be in-touch with more family members than anyone else.   In this case, although an intelligent man- he lives in Washington State.  Why is he the “Heart”? I am guessing it’s simply because he put the most belief and research into the mystical traditions of our family- and somehow, was given the gift to manage not to offend anyone.   There is no family member I have heard say “I dislike Uncle Harry”- because, well, it’s pretty impossible to dislike the guy.  His mother before him had a strong personality, to be certain and they have very different personalities- but I can’t say I didn’t strongly wish he had more time to make it here.

4. If you can’t make the funeral, send flowers.  I don’t care if you hated her- go on the local florist website and get the $20 special- she still has grieving family members behind who think of her fondly.

5.  If you consider yourself Heathen, and this is the most important, if you see things that need to be done and people who need to be contacted: Do it yourself.  Don’t rely on who is “supposed” to.  Modern culture is largely rootless, and it is better to quietly and expediently help in all ways possible to support the primary family members who have taken on the burden of scheduling the funeral.  If no one has called your 2nd cousin and you know how to get him on the phone? Call him/her.  If there are momentos you have from the deceased (photographs, etc)- bring them with to share with the grieving.

I am literally the great-niece of the deceased, however, her son was very rapidly in a coma at her time of death- leaving one sister in Maryland to take care of all the funeral arrangements.  A funeral should NEVER fall entirely on the back of a single person if there is a larger family.  Instead of getting resentful and angry- just do what needs to be done yourself.  It’s good Frith, and very good for the family orlog.  It doesn’t matter what your birth order is, you will learn greater kindness if you do the work that others left unfinished- in addition, you will then be able to connect people who need to be connected much more easily by building trust with your extended family.

There are many fractures and breaks in most large families where people for whatever reason are not on speaking terms.  It is not your job to force them to “get over it”- however, it is the kind thing to make certain both parties are informed of the death.  In the case of my family- with my “Uncle Cousin” in the ICU-  there are people who want to make amends and heal rifts.  Sometimes, a funeral is the best chance to start that process- and in healing those rifts, the family is stronger for it.

Sometimes, it’s the only way to know that “Aunt So-in-So” hasn’t called you back in a year because she’s been struggling in some way.  Many Germans fear being a “burden” on their loved one’s in their declining years- but imagine being awake and lucid and dying completely alone= that’s terrifying, and I feel no one should have a death alone while relatives still live.  It’s our responsibility to know who is sick among our elders, and if are able, to spend time with them and learn what we can from them.   We do not have that chance after they’re gone to the same extent.

If Heathenry is all about Folk, Family, Frith, etc….then it must be equally applied to one’s own blood relations, not just your “Heathen Family” you have via your Kindreds, organizations, or social groups.

SPECIAL NOTICE:  Most funerals you attend in the United States will be Christian, and even if you despise Christianity, out of respect for the dead, also understand that by being Heathen, we are inherently polytheists.  Did Jesus exist?  I don’t know- but Aunt Shirley believed in him and it’s her funeral.   You do greater dishonor by disrespecting the religion of the deceased than by just being respectful.

A few people asked my religion at the service- and because we’re Deitsch, I could tell the older family members I was “Pow-Wow”- the local word for Braucher/Hexer.  For people who were not so old, I explained I worship the Old German Gods briefly, I’m clergy, but I’m respectful of all faiths.

The only brief moment of “religious clash” that occurred was regarding the minister when he learned I do some multi-faith chaplaincy and the “conversation” lasted under a minute:
Pastor: “Have you considered turning to Jesus?”
Me: “My Religion doesn’t send people to convert others to their God; people who feel called to our Gods seek us out.”

This conversation was private and not-showy- but I was very clear that I was no threat to his congregation and not interested in further religious discussion at my Great Aunt’s funeral.  Keeping a strong, Heathen stance doesn’t mean shouting your Heathen-hood from the rooftops, a quiet sentence can solve a problem of unrest more quickly than any spectacle.  The funeral said very little about my aunt and appeared to be a 15 minute long advertisement for Christianity.

Keep in mind, even if your family members are not Heathen, a funeral is not a time to speak up on this common practice unless asked or confronted directly.  Be assured, no one anywhere enjoys listening to someone claiming a monopoly on spiritual knowledge. I know many Heathens have made scenes in their own families when this happens- but I feel this to be unnecessary unless the deceased is misrepresented in their OWN faith.  In the Rare instance your dead relative OPENLY Heathen deceased, Christian funeral by well-meaning Christian descendants- if that is the case, ask/offer to give a reading from “Their favorite book” and read from the Hamaval.

Actually, know what?  Offer that service regardless- even if your Great Uncle Lucius was a Hindu, offer to read from the Bhagavah Gita for his memory.  You might be rejected by the presiding minister, but usually, they are understanding in most traditions.  (As a Lokean, I suggest phrasing it as ” Reading a little from His/Her favorite book”- That, is seldom rejected unless time is not permitting…however, some Heathens feel that might be disingenuous.)  Whatever your own ethical standard dictates is usually a good guide in these matters.

This was not the case in my great aunt- she was Christian, so in this funeral it was unnecessary to offer this service. However, I have been to other funerals where the deceased was Heathen but his Blood-family was Christian, in that funeral, many people spoke from the Hamaval and en Deitsch for him in the service. (However, the service ended up incredibly long!)

In conclusion-  if you want to be Heathen, start with your own blood and work out.  You can still be Heathen surrounded by Christians and provide an example to others of Frith, Strength, and Fidelity at the time your own blood needs it most.

Heathen or not.

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